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Yael Cohen discusses the negative and positive attributes of the Israeli arms trade and whether it has enhanced Israel’s diplomatic relations with India.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin (L) and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (R)

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin (L) and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (R) Photo Credit: EPA

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is soon expected to visit Israel as part of a historic visit for talks aimed at enhancing bilateral relations between the two countries. It is the first ever visit by an Indian prime minister to the Jewish state and Modi is not visiting any other country in the Middle East during his visit. In the past, Indian prime ministers did regional tours. What prompted Modi to visit Israel but not any other Middle Eastern country?

One of the reasons is the good quality weapons that Israel can sell to India. While India has high-quality Russian weapons, they seek highly technical Israeli weapons that can upgrade their defense system even further. “Since the renewal of formal diplomatic relations in 1992, defense cooperation has been one of the main pillars of bilateral engagement between the two nations,” The Hindustan Times reported. In the last 5 years, the defense trade between the two countries has averaged more than $1 billion annually.

The question is, is this high level of defense trade between India and Israel a positive development? There are elements of both Indian and Israeli academia who feel that the arms trade between India and Israel is something both countries can be proud of. The Begin Sadat Center for Strategic Studies held a talk titled “India-Israel Ties: Future Trajectories,” which featured Prof. P. R. Kumaraswamy of the Centre for West Asian Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.  In this talk, Prof. Kumaraswamy argued that there is nothing wrong with this defense trade: “If you want peace, you have to understand war. If you want to buy a weapon, you have to test it. People even had weapons in the stone ages.” 

Furthermore, he emphasized that the arms trade is only one aspect of Indian-Israeli relations: “We want to learn from Israel. The relationship is based upon economic development, not on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or Kashmir. It is not just about arms. It is a strategic relationship.” He emphasized that India is greatly interested also in what Israel can offer related to waste-water management, desalinization and drip-irrigation, claiming that India is even more interested in that than arms trade: “Modi wants technology to modernize India. It will be a major shopping trip.”

However, the Coalition of Women for Peace views all of the arms trade between Israel and other countries in a negative light. When the Premier International Defense and HLS Exposition was ongoing in Tel Aviv, they held a conference at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art titled “Insecurity,” where attorney Eitay Mack and numerous other speakers spoke out against Israel’s arms industry, claiming that Israeli weapons have been utilized by various dictatorships to commit human rights violations across the world.

However, the Coalition of Women for Peace isn’t only opposed to Israel trading weapons with dictatorships for they also objected to Israel training and assisting the New York Police Department. When the Coalition of Women for Peace was asked about India, they preferred to speak about China, Burma and other countries. However, they did briefly state that India had a pavilion at the arms exposition and that they are a major customer for Israel.

The question remains, which side is correct? On the one hand, when a democratic country like Israel sells advanced weapons or offers training to a dictatorship, there is always a risk that this country can use the training and weapons to commit human rights abuses. However, Israel cannot be singled out for this for many other countries do likewise. Nevertheless, there should not be any issue with a democratic country doing arms deals or police training with another democratic country. Since every country has its flaws, it is not practical to be opposed to all arms deals and all police training. As long as there is room within the democracy to address any grievances related to human rights violations, that is the most important thing.

On the other side of the coin, the arms trade provides a major boost for any countries economy and provides numerous people with jobs. It also has transformed Israel into a regional powerhouse. The arms trade has enabled Israel to turn numerous countries that were lukewarm or even hostile to Israel into strategic partners and according to Prof. P. R. Kumaraswamy, India now has a more pro-Israel position in international institutions towards the Jewish state largely thanks to the warming up of relations in recent times. Perhaps if Israel did not have an arms trade, this would not have happened.